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Jay Wright Took a Page Out of the NBA’s Playbook to Build College Basketball’s Modern Dynasty

Villanova isn’t trying to keep up with Duke and Kentucky in the one-and-done arms race. With two national championships in three seasons, maybe it’s Jay Wright and the Wildcats who have found the formula for success instead of Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The anglerfish is a hellish-looking creature, considered one of the ugliest in the animal kingdom. It is large — as big as 40 inches long — and has a plumpness that resembles that of a human head, if the skull of the person in question weighed up to 110 pounds and bore a likeness to a round-faced Freddy Krueger. Its habitat is the depths of the ocean floor, where sunlight does not penetrate. It’s in this cover of darkness that the anglerfish hunts its prey. As it lies hidden, it emits a bright light from a long tentacle. It’s a trick, a diversionary tactic — the anglerfish uses the light to lure in its prey only to crush it with its savage fangs.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the anglerfish when looking ahead to the college basketball season. It’s not to say that the sport can be a hideous sight to behold and operates under the cloak of darkness, though one might make the comparison work. It’s about the bright lights and shiny objects that draw us to the game and how we miss the real force lurking nearby. In college basketball, the dangling light comes in the form of a one-and-done arms race waged between traditional blue bloods such as Duke and Kentucky. They hoard the nation’s elite talent only to see them depart for the NBA after one season, annually replenishing their rosters with the next wave of blue-chip prospects. At Duke, Jabari Parker gives way to Jahlil Okafor, who is then replaced by Brandon Ingram, followed by Jayson Tatum, then Marvin Bagley III; this season it will be Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett taking their turn through Durham’s revolving door. These players provide the star power and create the interest in college basketball — sometimes they even win national championships — but they are a distraction. For the true power in college hoops lurks elsewhere. The most powerful force in the game, that which delivers the deadliest blow, comes in the form of the most efficient offense in the modern era, anchored by veteran leaders and fueled by quick-strike scoring. Year after year, fans are led astray by the one-and-dones that shine the brightest. And all the while, Villanova lies in wait, ready to claim another national championship.

For the past three seasons, no team has matched the Wildcats’ success. In 2016, they rode Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart (with a little help from Kris Jenkins) to their first national title since 1985. In 2018, they used a similar combination of upperclassmen, with juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges filling Arcidiacono’s and Hart’s roles (with help coming this time from Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman), to become the second team since 1975 to win two nonconsecutive titles in three seasons. This season, Villanova can join even more esteemed company. Only two teams — Duke (1991, 1992) and Florida (2006, 2007) — have repeated as champions since UCLA won the last of its seven consecutive titles in 1973. But since the Bruins finished that dominant run, no team has cut down the nets three times in four years.

Villanova enters this fall ranked ninth by the Associated Press. The Wildcats lost four of their top six contributors from last season to the draft, with Bridges, DiVincenzo, and Spellman all going in the first round, and Brunson taken early in the second round. This year’s team still has links to Nova’s past two championship teams, however. Senior guard Phil Booth featured heavily in the 2016 and 2018 title games, and forward Eric Paschall started in April’s title win against Michigan. Their returns are reason for celebration, but it’s Villanova’s new contributors who could affect opponents’ game plans the most. Jahvon Quinerly is just the third five-star prospect to suit up for the Wildcats this decade. The diminutive point guard was a McDonald’s All American, and is the heir apparent to Brunson and Kyle Lowry’s lineage of dominant Nova ball handlers. Also new to the program is graduate transfer Joe Cremo, who joins the Wildcats after leading the America East Conference in effective field goal percentage and finishing fourth in points per game in his final season at Albany. The shooting guard was the most sought-after graduate transfer in college basketball this offseason, fielding interest from Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke, and Texas, among others. His style of play should fit perfectly with how Wright likes his team to score.

There still may be some unknowns with the Wildcats offense, but there are a few things we can typically count on each year. For starters, they’ll be among the most efficient in the country. Since the 2013–14 season, Villanova has never finished a season with an offense ranked lower than 21st by KenPom, and has finished in the top five in each of the past four years. This improvement coincided with a change in where the Wildcats’ shots came from. Between 2008 and 2013, Villanova ranked in the mid-100s in the frequency of 3-pointers attempted, with anywhere from 32 to 35.3 percent of their attempts coming from beyond the arc. The percentage of shots the Wildcats have taken from that range since has skyrocketed, eclipsing 42 percent in every season, and climbing as high as 47.5 percent this past year. Jay Wright’s deep-ball revolution took college basketball by storm, much as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors did in the NBA. In a landscape often dominated by glacial pace and teams that dump the ball to a big man, Villanova is an outlier, pushing the boundaries of what a college offense can be. Not only are the Wildcats taking more shots from 3 than almost anyone else, but they’re making more of them too.

Last year, Wright’s squad made more than 40 percent of its takes from outside the arc, while its free throw attempt rate plummeted. And though it might seem concerning that the Wildcats weren’t drawing as many fouls last season, they didn’t need to. In college, a typical trip to the free throw line is worth about 1.38 points. Against Kansas in the Final Four, Villanova averaged 1.35 points every time it attempted a 3. What’s the point of getting to the stripe when you can produce the same level of efficiency from deep?

This season’s team should continue to terrorize the Big East. Bridges, Spellman, Brunson, and DiVincenzo were Villanova’s four best 3-point shooters last year, but sophomore guard Collin Gillespie, Booth, and Paschall weren’t far behind. Cremo knocked down nearly 46 percent of his deep attempts for Albany last season, and though Quinerly’s shooting has been inconsistent thus far, his elite playmaking and passing ability, along with his slashing prowess, should allow the Wildcats offense to fire on all cylinders, especially since he’ll be able to take advantage of space created by the team’s plethora of deep threats.

Wright may let Booth handle some playmaking duties as the season begins, but it’s a safe bet that Quinerly will take over those responsibilities as the team moves deeper into its schedule. A mid-November test against Michigan should show the first signs of how well Villanova’s new additions will fare this season, and a December 15 showdown versus Kansas will be an indication as to whether this edition of the Wildcats is prepared to challenge for another championship.

A loss to the Jayhawks might quiet the hype around Villanova, at least for a little while. The focus will shift, as it often does, to Duke, and Kentucky, and every other team with a handful of players who will hear Adam Silver call their names in next year’s NBA draft. But if the past few seasons have taught us anything, it’s this: The acquisition of elite one-and-done prospects is not the surest path to NCAA tournament success. With its adoption of high-volume 3-point shooting and blend of veteran returnees and talented recruits, Villanova, not Duke or Kentucky, has found the most effective formula for success in the modern era.